Igor Stravinsky, Esa Pekka-Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London

On October 8 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley California, the Philharmonia Orchestra of London performed a program dedicated entirely to the work of Igor Stravinsky. We at CatSynth were in attendance at this event.

Philharmonia Orchestra 6 March 2013 Esa-Pekka Salonen  Lutosławski rehearsal; RFH  commissioned by Alice Walton
[Photo by Benjamin Ealovega. Courtesy of Cal Performances.]

The second half of the program featured one of his most famous works, The Rite of Spring. But it was the first half that was the most interesting and inspiring, as it featured some of later and infrequently performed works, culminating in the masterpiece Agon. In fact, the concert opened with Fanfare for Three Trumpets, which was originally intended as an opening for the piece that became Agon. The fanfare puts many of the elements that characterized Stravinsky’s later music in a compact form, including more atonal and serial elements, and some of the sparse sounds and character from pre-Rennaisance European music.

The Fanfare was followed by Symphonies of Wind Instruments. I definitely enjoyed this focus on wind instruments, as it is more in my background than the strings that dominate orchestral music. But the piece also shows the combination and contrasts of musical style and discipline that cross both his middle and late periods. It has some of the elements that one might call “neo-classical”, and has a very systematic structure. It does pay homage to Claude Debussy, whom Stravinsky had known and admired when the two were together in Paris. But it also includes elements attributed to his Russian heritage (in particular, liturgical elements from the Orthodox church) and complex mixing of meters and tempi. The orchestration for wind instruments gives the overall piece a more austere quality.

The increased abstraction in Stravinsky’s later work in the U.S. after World War II in many ways culminates with Agon. The piece borrows elements from the serialism of both the Second Viennese School as later composers like Stockhausen and Messiaen, but especially combination of pitch and orchestration found in the work of Anton Webern. Indeed, characteristics Webern can be heard throughout the piece, including the use of mandolin in the orchestra. It was originally a dance piece, but an abstract “dance about dance”, and it worked even in a purely concert setting. It features strong rhythms and texture that pair with dance, but it mixes in complex counter-melodies in meters such as 5/16 or 7/16. The use of twelve-tone series is not orthodox, and mixed with folk and even jazzy elements. We can hear some of the ritual qualities that characterized Symphonies as well. It is indeed a very complex piece, but also a playful one and one that was great to hear performed live. It is unfortunately not performed that often.

By contrast, the Rite of Spring, which followed in the second half of the concert, seemed quite tame and familiar. In addition to being one of Stravinsky’s most recognized works, it also has an overall sound that influenced (directly or indirectly) orchestral film scores in the coming decades. As such it has a comfortable quality even while being forceful and intense. It has hard in 2016 to imagine what about this piece would cause concert-goers to riot in 1913.

Conductor Esa Pekka-Salonen has been quite the noted interpreter of Stravinsky’s music, conducting many of his pieces with the Philharmonia Orchestra (and the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra before that) and presenting a year-long Stravinsky series. It is great to hear these interpretations, especially of the later and less-known American period. Hopefully some in attendance at Zellerbach Hall that night left with more curiosity about these works.

Moe!kestra! “End of an Error” at Cellspace

Last night I attended the latest performance of the Moe!kestra! at Cellspace.

“Imagine a man playing an orchestra as though it were a percussion instrument, and you might get some idea of the Moe!Kestra!”. Indeed the performance was in many ways a percussion piece even though the ensemble was almost entirely string instruments: violins, violas, electric guitars, and upright basses. All led by Moe! Staiano.

A Moe!kestra! often includes many familiar musicians. Frequent collaborators Bill Wolter and Clyde Niesen played guitar and upright bass, respectively. Suki O’kane (percussion) and Moe! were both participants in the July Flip Quartet performance. Marielle Jakobsen was part of the Blessing Moon concert that we reviewed here at CatSynth.

The piece being performed was “End of an Error”, inspired by the date January 20, 2009, a date that many of us were highly anticipating, both for its beginning and for the great national embarrassment that it (at least in a formal sense) ended.

The music started out with series of percussive notes on the basses. Soon the violin and viola sections joined in, not on their regular instruments, but instead playing “switches”, i.e., cut sticks that they shook vigorously. An “out of phase” rhythm emerged between the basses and switches, may two notes from the former followed by a splattering of air sounds from the other.

Eventually the other instruments, the guitars, the percussionists and the actual violins/violas entered with more of the percussive notes, and the music became louder and denser. At some point, with all the instruments playing, the texture changed dramatically to something more akin to a “rock orchestra” or a film soundtrack. The pitched material was tonal with lots of familiar chords, but what I call “tense tonality” that one hears in films, and behind it the rhythm of a conventional drum kit from the percussionists. I can’t pin point exactly when the texture and style changed, but it was a sharp contrast.

There were several such changes throughout the performance. Things grew to a crescendo, then “crashed”, with everyone playing long extended tones, forming an atonal drone. After a subsequent swell, there was another “film-like” element with string glissandi. Other moments of note included the tossing of an empty water cooler by Moe! over the heads of the violists. No one was hurt, and it landed a perfect hit in between the other instrumental rhythms.

There was a really thick drone of all seven guitarists playing slides out of sync. The guitarists also closed the performance with a series of repeating flange/chorus tones that gradually came to a stop.

The Moe!kestra performance actually did not begin until 9:30 (despite the announcements suggesting 8PM as the start). We were treated a Sun Ra tribute, featuring videos set to music from The Arkestra. The video included clips of Sun Ra and animations with pseudo-Hebrew lettering and odd vaguely extraterrestial elements, presumably from some of his films. But there were also many other unrelated elements including numerous anime scenes – there was one anime in which all the characters seemed to be playing keytars while doing battle with mechs; martial-arts comedies, a James Bond film (probably Diamonds Are Forever); and a transgendered singer walking down the street and then being transported to another dimension with a Sumo wrestler and bizarre Asian puppet characters. Four of us started playing iPhone Scrabble instead. It has a multi-player mode where one can pass the phone around in a circle and each player takes turns with their own tile set. Highly recommended as a way to pass the time.

Greenlief @ 50

On Tuesday, I attended the fourth greelief@50 concert, a series marking the birthday of local musician and composer Phillip Greenlief. We haven’t actually played together, but have been on the same program several times, and we have crossed paths and numerous Bay Area new-music events over the last few years. The show took place at The Uptown in (downtown) Oakland.

The opening set was a performance by Weasel Walter/Devin Hoff/Darren Johnston/Damon Smith. I hesitate to say whether or not it was an improvisation set because they did have scores, but in any case it had the sound and structure of a free jazz improvisation set. The best moment was when a particularly dense section suddenly gave way to a tenor solo, and then back to the full ensemble just as suddenly.

The main set was a large ensemble, consisting of orchesperry (named for local musician Matthew Sperry) and the Cardew Choir. In total, this was indeed a large ensemble.

I’m not sure what the lab coats were about.

The group performed several compositions by Greenlief, who conducted in bold and dramatic style. Of particular note was the second piece, which opened with percussion and a string sound that seemed electronic. This was followed by a saxophone solo that was rather melodic, a voice solo, and then bursts of sound from various musicians. The piece then built up towards the standard loud and dense improvisation, before quickly coming to a close. The piece was rather short, so short that it seemed the audience wasn’t sure it was over, and performer Bob Marsh had to cue the audience to applaud.

Another piece of note, for me at least, was Monument, dedicated to work of artist Eva Hesse, whose work I have seen on several occasions here in San Francisco and elsewhere. The piece was “dedicated to the electronic musicians in the ensemble”, and featured the electronic sounds and textures to which we at CatSynth have become very accustomed – so that hearing synthesizers and processors in the midst of a large mostly-acoustic concert can have a very familiar and inviting quality – especially when one thinks about in the context of modern and contemporary visual art.

As is often the case, there are a fair number of familiar faces at these performances, so a certain amount of time is spent being social in addition to the music itself. Nothing wrong with that, though it was a Tuesday and I ended up not staying very long.

NOTE: this was the 800th post for CatSynth